LOOKING FOR THE HALLMARK and WHAT DOES IT MEAN. Much of the old silver found in this country is made by silversmiths of our own country and the British Isles. It is this silver that I will be taking a closer look at. English silver antique pieces for household use, carry one or more marks by which their provenance, age and identity of individual makers can be established; these hallmarks are rquired by law. American silver marks are much simpler and do not follow any system by law—in this case each piece just bears the mark of the maker. The older the piece of silver the more worn down the mark becomes; some marks are completely erased by time. On American silver the maker’s mark might be a single letter, initials, or a name. On spoons, such marks are on the back of the handle. On larger pieces look for the mark on the base or the side. Near the upper end of the handle was a favorite spot for old silversmiths to put their mark on tankards. Rarely but sometimes pieces with lids have marks both on the lid and base. And to really trip you up if no mark can be found, try taking a flashlight to the inside of hollow ware. To find who these marks belong to, you can reference right on line by going to http://www.silvercollecting.com/silvermarksW.html, or http://www.modernsilver.com/basichallmarks.htm, and http://www.925-1000.com/index.html. The older the piece the greater its value. After 1847 new words began to appear with the mark; “pure coin”, “warrented”, “warrented pure coin”. This was the time of the first really successful plating of silver in this country. They made a base metal and electroplated it with silver. To boast their superiority silversmiths might mark a piece “pure coin” which is a centruries old practice of melting silver coins for use as raw material. Also, after 1874 silver in America, a piece might bear the word “sterling” which means 925 parts pure silver to 75 parts copper alloy. After electroplating silver became commercially successful, several makers of pewter and Britannia took advantage of this form of plating. Needless to say these later pieces in the 1900’s are not as collectible or as desired. Often there is a number on the bottom with the other markings. This number indicates the pattern, not the year.
THINGS TO LOOK FOR. Plated tea and coffee pots made before 1850 have carved wooden handles. The wood was often made of maple dyed black to simulate ebony. Metal-handled ones equipped with small mother-of-pearl insulators date between 1850 and 1870. The design will also reflect the time it was made. Prior to the Victorian period the designs were usually made in restrained classic urn shapes. The allover engraved decorated pieces came later as the Victorian’s took fancy to more lavishing details.
From the 1750 to 1850 a unique group of English craftsmen produced hollow-ware pieces with a less costly material known as Sheffield plate. Today this is very collectable. But do not get confused, there are reproduction pieces done in the last forty years, by electroplating on a piece of copper. They are marked “Sheffield” and sometimes bear a maker’s name but should not be confused with the antique Sheffield. The treasured Sheffield of the past was made beginning with a block of copper. Fused to the upper and under sides of it were thinner blocks of silver. This block was then repeatedly passed under heavy pressure between polished rollers. Eventually this material became a thin sheet of metal with silver on top and bottom with copper between. From this the silversmiths fashioned beautiful silver pieces. Since copper showed where the edges joined, a silver-wire beading was applied with solder. There are about a hundred English makers of Sheffield plate. After 1784 marking Sheffield was required.
If you would like to know more about silver please check out my other articles. There is a rich and fascinating history that goes ignored and overlooked. Next time you see some old silver take a closer look, you might have a treasure.
Written by: Karen Malzeke-McDonald